Dean Martin as Matt Helm, smooth secret agent
French Riviera, Summer 1966
Film: Murderers’ Row
Release Date: December 20, 1966
Director: Henry Levin
Costume Designer: Moss Mabry
Tailor: Sy Devore
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Happy birthday to Dean Martin, born Dino Paul Crocetti on June 7, 1917, in Steubenville, Ohio! After a successful singing and acting career that included partnerships with Jerry Lewis and the Rat Pack as well as his own TV show, Dino was tapped for the role of Matt Helm, the American counter-agent at the center of author Donald Hamilton’s espionage novels.
While Hamilton wrote his Matt Helm novels with a serious tone, Dino’s characterization parodied the character as more of a playboy lounge lizard, the American satirical answer to his contemporary womanizer James Bond. Thus, the four Matt Helm movies produced in the late ’60s often starred the popular singer opposite many of the most attractive leading ladies of the decade.
Martin’s second Matt Helm feature, Murderers’ Row, sets the agent on a mission to rescue a scientist, Dr. Norman Soleris, from the evil Dr. Julian Wall (Karl Malden, who cheerfully chews the scenery in his purple silk suit and rotating accents), aided by the scientist’s daughter Suzie (Ann-Margret) who “borrows” her preppy boyfriend Billy’s boat to transport them. Murderers’ Row reunited Karl Malden and Ann-Margreat a year after the two co-starred with Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid.
Matt and Suzie are captured—of course—and the agent’s true identity is revealed. A plot clearly inspired by Dr. No follows, though Ann-Margret’s Suzie proves to be much more than a stylish damsel-in-distress in an era of more complacent Bond girls. Once she’s released from her torture wall, Suzie sabotages Dr. Wall’s computer system, activates a super-magnet that helps Matt evade his most dangerous attacker, and takes action to take out the pilot of Dr. Wall’s hovercraft to control it herself.
What’d He Wear?
Perhaps a nod to their nautical transportation, Matt Helm dresses in a blue double-breasted blazer that recalls a classic naval reefer jacket. These bolder blue blazers were increasingly fashionable during the mid-to-late 1960s, as recently popularized by Roger Sterling‘s rotation of at least three similar double-breasted blue blazers in the later seasons of Mad Men.
The blazer is made from a rich blue material with a soft nap and sheen that could indicate the luxurious combination of a cashmere and silk blend. The double-breasted jacket has peak lapels that roll to a single buttoning point on the four-button front. All four of the buttons are silver-toned metal shank buttons.
The blazer has a welted breast pocket, flapped hip pockets, and non-functioning two-button cuffs with smaller versions of the silver-toned shank buttons on the front. The blazer also has double vents.
The leisure-embracing Matt Helm often supplements his suits, sport jackets, and blazers with the easy comfort of a pullover turtleneck jumper. In this case, he sports a powder blue turtleneck that complements his blazer. The jumper has a finely ribbed-knit roll neck (or “polo neck”), cuffs, and hem.
Matt wears his turtleneck untucked over his waistband, but his action scenes (and even a few inaction scenes) give us looks at the details of his gray sharkskin wool trousers, including the beltless waistband with buckle-tab adjusters on the sides and the single reverse pleats on each side of the fly. The trousers have slanted side pockets, no back pockets, and straight legs that end with plain-hemmed bottoms.
Matt wears black suede chukka boots and black socks.
“Polka dot shorts!” exclaims Suzie.
Thanks to Suzie’s loose grip during their maritime rescue, no questions are left unanswered about Matt Helm’s choice of undergarments with this outfit, wearing a pair of white cotton boxer shorts with very large crimson red polka dots.
What to Imbibe
Matt pretends that he will take Dr. Wall’s side by pouring himself a glass of Bourbon for a monitored call to his boss, Mac, who knows that it’s a ruse by telling his colleagues: “Matt Helm never took a drink of bourbon in his life!”
Indeed, Matt Helm shares Dean Martin’s preferred whisk(e)y of choice: Scotch.
The Matt Helm series continued to separate itself from the comparatively grounded early James Bond adventures by issuing its hero with a series of secret weapons developed with bizarre quirks, such as the Hy Hunter Bolomauser modified AR-7 pistol that only fires ten seconds after the trigger is pulled. (Source: IMFDB)
Bond fans would recall the Armalite AR-7 survival rifle in 007’s hands as he shot a Bulgar assassin and disabled a SPECTRE helicopter in From Russia With Love. In this case, the weapon has been cut down to only its main receiver with a shortened, detachable barrel and a large wooden grip, somewhat resembling the classic Mauser C-96 “Broomhandle” pistol or—perhaps more accurately—the Star Wars “blaster” that the C-96 inspired.
Despite its quirks, the gun is used quite effectively, confounding Matt’s attackers when they pick it up and often trade friendly fire… and it ultimately proves to be the undoing of Dr. Wall himself.
Dr. Wall (dying): Clever.
Matt Helm: If you say so.
A guard uses Matt’s delayed-fire AR-7 to accidentally take out another guard who, in turn, returns fire with his own folding-stock carbine. With both guards out of commission, Matt upgrades his firepower by arming himself with the latter guard’s M1A1 Carbine, a semi-automatic rifle chambered for .30 Carbine that was developed for the U.S. Army and most widely fielded by paratroopers during World War II. The side-folding stock differentiates the M1A1 from the standard M1 Carbine model.
Somewhat less lethal is Matt’s pocket pistol taken from Coco (Camilla Sparv), a nickel-plated and ornately engraved “ice” pistol that fires an icy blast rather than actual bullets. The weapon comes in handy to silently—if somewhat unrealistically—disable several of Dr. Wall’s guards that he encounters during his infiltration of the lair.
How to Get the Look
Whether your day at sea will end up with invading a villain’s lair or simply enjoying a drink on the deck of your friend’s boat, Dean Martin’s Matt Helm provides a stylish template for your nautical adventure.
- Blue napped cashmere/silk double-breasted blazer with peak lapels, 4×1-button front, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and double vents
- Powder blue turtleneck with ribbed-knit neck, cuffs, and hem
- Gray sharkskin single reverse-pleated trousers with buckle-tab side adjusters, slanted side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black suede chukka boots
- Black socks
- White (with large dark red polka dots) cotton boxer shorts
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie or the whole four-film Matt Helm series.
Nobody dies for nothing.